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  • Jul 31, 2014
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Xi Jinping
CommentInsight & Opinion

Xi proves to be no Mao follower, but a disciple of Deng

Robert Lawrence Kuhn says the third plenum should lay to rest speculation about whether Xi Jinping is a reformer; he is clearly a pragmatist, as was Deng Xiaoping

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 5:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:59am

For the past year, ever since Xi Jinping was confirmed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the big question has been: Is Xi a reformer? Now, after the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee, we have our answer. It is neither "yes" nor "no".

Without doubt, the third plenum institutes systemic reforms that seek to transform China's economy and society. Specifics will come later and implementation will take years, but major reform is finally policy, not rhetoric. It is Xi's unambiguous commitment that the market must drive the economy, government retreat to regulation and oversight, farmers and migrant workers have equal rights and opportunities, and judicial system reform "deepen".

All and more are paragons of reform. That some reforms were not enacted, particularly breaking the monopolies of state-owned enterprises, should be viewed with the lens of political expediency.

In addition, early in his first year, Xi seemed to articulate a liberal agenda: curbing official extravagances, praising China's rights-protecting (but largely irrelevant) constitution, and suggesting some form of judicial independence. More recently, Xi backed Premier Li Keqiang in establishing the Shanghai free-trade zone.

Intriguingly, Xi called for the party, which maintains atheism as an article of faith and requirement for membership, to be more tolerant of China's "traditional cultures" or religions. Though he did so to halt moral decay and fill the spiritual vacuum created by market-driven materialism, this was no hard-core Marxist at work. (Xi's father, former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun was respected as a far-sighted visionary on ethnic and religious affairs.)

But initial hope and optimism among liberals gave way to growing dismay and pessimism as China tightened media controls, policed social media, detained liberal activists and forbade discussion of "universal values" such as civil society, judicial independence and press freedoms. In internal speeches, Xi used the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the Soviet Communist Party as a case study of what the party must never permit. For sure, Xi will not be "China's Gorbachev".

Most worrying, perhaps, Xi seemed to embrace Mao Zedong : visiting Mao's shrines, adapting Mao's party "rectification" and "mass line" campaigns, defending Mao's leadership ("not being negative about the 30 years before Deng Xiaoping's economic reform"), and resisting "historical nihilism" (restricting condemnation of Mao's egregious delusions, particularly the mass political campaigns that terrorised millions).

How then to harmonise this "reform-resisting Xi" with the "reformer Xi" we saw at the third plenum? I put this question to an intellectual minister who worked with Xi. Xi is neither a reformer nor a non-reformer, the minister told me. "Xi, like Deng Xiaoping, is a pragmatist," he said.

This rings true. Xi's first trip outside Beijing as China's leader was to Shenzhen, where he seemed to track Deng's famous southern tour in 1992 that triggered the recrudescence of reform, following its stagnation in the wake of the Tiananmen tragedy in June 1989.

For those disquieted by Xi's good words for Mao, recall that even here Xi follows Deng. According to Deng, Mao was "70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong", and his "contributions are primary and his errors secondary". Even though Deng had been purged by Mao three times, he still opposed those who would have assessed Mao more harshly. Deng, who was a realist, preserved Mao not to uphold Mao, but to preserve the party, which, at the very beginning of reform, Deng believed deeply was essential for China's development.

In 1981, at the sixth plenary session of the 11th Central Committee, a "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party" was passed as judgment of Mao's historical role and thought in light of the still-fresh Cultural Revolution.

The resolution called Mao "a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist". It admitted he "made gross mistakes during the 'cultural revolution', but, if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes".

The resolution praised "Mao Zedong Thought" for socialist construction; ideological, political and cultural work; party building; seeking truth from facts; the "mass line"; national independence and self-reliance.

Sound familiar? Xi, vintage 2013? Remember this comes directly from the 1981 resolution on Mao, for which Deng was wholly responsible. That's why when Xi said, early this year, "to completely negate Mao Zedong would lead to the demise of the Chinese Communist Party and to great chaos in China", he was channelling Deng, not Mao.

Xi is convinced that continuity of party rule is essential for China to achieve its historic goals, and because he believes that if Mao is brought down, the foundations of the party would crack and perhaps crumble, that for the good of China, he must secure Mao's legacy. Society allows no perfect alignment between success and truth and Xi is choosing his priorities with vision and commitment.

So is Xi "signalling left while turning right", as the aphorism attributed to Deng goes? Conventional wisdom, to which I had subscribed, says the jury is still out. I've changed my mind. I think we can know today, following the third plenum, who Xi really is and what he really believes. Just take what he says at face value; then harmonise what seem to be contradictory positions within his higher-order political philosophy, which Xi has labelled, famously, the "Chinese dream".

Xi is goal-oriented, not ideologically constrained. His seeks to enhance the overall well-being of the Chinese people and to build the overall vitality of the Chinese nation. To accomplish these grand and complex goals - delivering the greatest good to the greatest many - Xi believes, as do many, that the party must continue to be the ruling party and that no measures can be excluded in assuring its control.

So, is Xi a reformer? Here's what we know. Xi is "not a reformer" and "not a not-a-reformer". He is a pragmatist. His role model is Deng. He is progressive on economic and social issues and conservative on political and party matters.

Here's what we do not know. If during Xi's decade of leadership, it becomes clear that tight political control is no longer optimal for China's development, what would Xi do? I return to my earlier forecast, though now for more nuanced reasons: to find out, we will have to wait, perhaps until the middle of Xi's second term, following the 19th party congress in 2017.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn has long-term relationships with China's leaders and the Chinese government. He is strategic adviser to multinational corporations and the author of How China's Leaders Think

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johnrai7
He is different.He has a vision.Good Luck Mr. Xi.
dunndavid
Kuhn gives about the most positive spin on Xi possible. For Deng's time, his reforms were quite revolutionary. Xi's reforms are quite modest and so far mostly rhetorical.
One alternative view is that Xi will not make enough changes to allow China to continue to grow and China will fall victim to it's asset bubble/middle income trap.
One thing particularly dubious is Kuhn's claim that Xi acts primarily in the interest of the country. Has Kuhn spent much time in China and/or around CCP members. Most Chinese and particularly party members act: First in their own interest. Distantly, second in the interest of their group - for CCP member the CCP is one such clan. Distantly from the second interest, third in the interest of the nation.
Their is plenty of chauvinism in China but little real patriotism. Xi is no different.
chuchu59
Deng was definitely a pragmatist and I dare say his reform policies have led China to be the economic powerhouse of present. Where would China have been with another 30 or so years with Mao at the helm. The guy is selfish and only cared for himself whilst placing the whole country in chaos and mayhem. It was nigh impossible for Deng to have solved everything during his time but I salute him for at least bringing part of China out of poverty and for now at least our country is not looked down upon by the 'rich countries'.
jonasbordeu@gmail.com
People who stands by an ideology not proven objectively are extremists imo. They can't see the flaws of their own and the merits of others. Pragmatism can also be an ideology, but at least it is not burdened with a rigid theoretical framework which is not objectively proven, and is the least of all evil in most circumstances that I can think of. Pragmatism is not without its flaws, I'm not saying that.
All ideologies have its pros and cons. It's what we should do, at the right time, at the right place, that will ensure most opportunities are seized with minimal casualties, with optimized benefits. The wise usually should make the call as we do not know the complete outcome before we take an action for a large society, and the wise will optimize the results of the bets. And it calls for reacting accordingly when you are acted upon ... pragmatism.
936756118@qq.com
uphold chairman xi. I consider he is correct. He and Deng are all great men. I am a doctor majoring in civil law,woring almost 20 years in remote areas in china. I have been reading lots of western books which including human values. I love these values,in fact,these values such as progress,science,democracy have been enforced in ordinary works.In china,many circumstances are complex.lots of Americen only see the phenomenon.They didnot probe the reason why cause the questions.for example,the peasants' well being are making great progress!when we probe some questions,we should probe the whole,cannot just pick out only a particular case to put up the views.I was born in a rural village,in my views,almost all peasants in my hometown lead a happy life.
Talking politics is no meaning.If the society is wealty,happy,almost all people lead a happy life,can you say the socity is unsuccessful? for example,Singgapor. we uphold these policies.I consider Xi will be a great person after Deng.He and premier Li keqiang can lead China into a wealthy society. Wangzhaolei From JInan city,china.
 
 
 
 
 

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